Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Balloon Boy: A Defense

It seems obligatory to open any essay on Falcon Heene with a few paragraphs about how tedious and irrelevant the whole thing was. Instead, I’m just going to be honest—I was fascinated by it. It’s one of four times I can remember watching TV recently, the other events being the Iraq invasion, Hurricane Katrina, and Michael Jackson’s death. Why was I fascinated? Because there was a home made balloon flying thousands of feet in the air with a kid supposedly aboard, and we didn’t know what was going to happen or had happened. That’s it. That’s why.

I know what you’re going to say…children die every day. Shouldn’t we be paying more attention to all the children dying in Iraq/Afghanistan/Africa/wherever instead of paying attention to Balloon Boy? I partly agree. I absolutely think we should be paying more attention to the people who die every day in tragic ways, and to the reasons why they die. It’s the “instead of” part that I want to quibble with. In other words, is Balloon Boy really the problem with the American media?

Consider that we’ve been killing people in Afghanistan for eight years now. The Balloon Boy incident lasted one day. What were we thinking about the rest of the time? And yes, it’s true that children die every day, but the possibility of someone dying isn’t what made this a story. Rather, it was the possibility of someone not dying. Specifically, of someone in imminent danger being rescued by the concerted efforts of a “community.” Someone who could have died but didn’t…or maybe someone who might have been rescued and wasn’t, depending out how it turned out.

All of which probably happens every day, too. Then again, you could say that about almost anything. Political corruption? Every day. Police brutality? Every day before breakfast. Sexual abuse? Every day and twice on Sundays. But it’s still a story and always should be. We’re in trouble when it isn’t. Consider what you’d do if Balloon Boy were a “real person,” perhaps someone adrift over your own neighborhood. Would you yawn and stretch, close the blinds, and go back to pondering the death toll in Darfur without even one little peek overhead? Unlikely.

But isn’t this pretty much how we’re being told we must respond if we want to be sophisticated consumers of information? The greatest crime seems to be in displaying that hint of credulity that marks a consumer as a novice. We’re told it’s obvious that the media should be less gullible. That they should do more “fact-checking” before trying to pawn off these second-rate melodramas. That they should evaluate these stories more critically.

Well, let’s evaluate the criticism for a moment. The first thing that’s obvious about the Balloon Boy meta-commentary is that its practitioners have no idea how news reporting is supposed to work. We didn’t expect the police to sit passively and wait for facts to accumulate before they took any action. We expected them to go get the facts as quickly as possible. The media’s job is very much the same. “Fact-checking” was exactly what we witnessed during the Balloon Boy incident, and it was messy. That’s how it looks when you see it in real time, and that’s how it works with a breaking story. Remember the point where the TV networks reported, “We now have confirmation that Falcon was in the balloon and that he has fallen to his death?” No, because they never reported that. They reported what they knew—that certain people had said or seen certain things—and checked their facts before reporting anything more. If the audience inferred anything more, it was because of their own lack of sophistication.

Which brings me at last to my point. I don’t think people are pissed off because of the way the media reported the story. I think they’re pissed off because the story made them feel credulous. And, going a bit further, I think they’re pissed off because it was bad entertainment. They may not know what reporting is supposed to be, but if you read their complaints in the same way you’d read, for example, a critique of some TV drama show, they make a lot more sense. After all, the whole narrative set up some very obvious expectations, either that the boy would die gruesomely or that he’d be rescued dramatically, and so forth, and the expectations pretty clearly failed to pay off. Who’s to blame if not the TV People? They’re the ones who create this stuff.

And to go further still, Balloon Boy is a scapegoat. It’s perfectly natural and healthy to be interested in a story like this. Was it healthy to be interested in the Heenes and all their oddities when they were the subject of Wife Swap? Is it healthy to be interested in season after season of daytime gossip and prime time hack work? Is it healthy to watch several hours of TV advertisements a day? Or even to believe that TV news would be informative if not for stunts like Balloon Boy?

Probably not, but I don’t see the same outcry about all of that other stuff. I wonder why?

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